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New US Congress Convenes, Economic Woes to Top Agenda


A new U.S. Congress has convened in Washington, with Democrats holding expanded majorities in both chambers. Lawmakers face an ambitious agenda put forward by President-elect Barack Obama, who takes office in two weeks. Despite an orderly swearing-in ceremony, the day began on a chaotic note as Senate officials refused to seat the appointed successor to Senator Obama.

Former Illinois attorney general Roland Burris, who was appointed by the state's scandal-tainted Governor Rod Blagojevich to the Senate seat vacated by President-elect Barack Obama, came to Washington expecting to be part of the swearing-in ceremony.

But Burris was turned away by Senate officials on grounds that his letter of appointment was not certified by the Illinois secretary of state. As he departed the U.S. Capitol, he spoke briefly to reporters.

"I presented my credentials to the secretary of the Senate, and advised that my credentials were not in order and I would not be accepted and I would not be seated and I would not be permitted on the floor," he said.

Senate Democratic leaders did not want to seat Burris because he was appointed by a governor who is under federal investigation for corruption, including allegations that he tried to sell off Mr. Obama's Senate seat.

"Roland Burris has not been certified by the state of Illinois. When that takes place, we of course will review it," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

But Burris, who is African-American, has his supporters, who believe he is qualified to serve as senator. Burris says he will consult his lawyers on his next course of action.

The Senate seat from Illinois is not the only one that remains vacant. Republican Senator Norm Coleman of Minnesota lost his reelection bid to Democrat and former comedian Al Franken by 225 votes in a recount of the close race, but he announced late Tuesday he will challenge the result in court.

If Franken's victory survives any legal challenge, it would give Democrats a 59-41 majority in the Senate, just one vote shy of the 60-vote majority needed to overcome Republican efforts to block their legislation.

Thirty two newly-elected or re-elected senators were sworn in by Vice President Dick Cheney, who serves as president of the Senate.

"Raise your right hand. Do you solemnly swear that you will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic, that you will bear true faith and allegiance to the same, that you take this obligation freely, without any reservation or purpose of evasion, and that you will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office in which you are about to enter, so help you, God?," Cheney said.

Among those senators taking the oath of office was Democratic Senator Joe Biden of Delaware, who will succeed Mr. Cheney as vice president on January 20.

The new Congress faces an ambitious agenda. President-elect Obama is urging lawmakers to act soon on a $775 billion stimulus plan to address the worst economic crisis in generations.

"It is going to take some time, even on an expedited schedule, to get a bill passed and on my desk," he said. "But we anticipate by the end of January or the first week in February we will have gotten the bulk of this done."

Healthcare reform and efforts to fight global warming are also priorities for the new administration.

When Mr. Obama takes the oath of office on January 20, Democrats will control both houses of Congress and the White House for the first time since 1994.

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